Town Hall: May 15, 2021

A Project for National Healing:
Dangerous Leadership, the Silencing of Experts, and the Erasure of Truth
May 15, 2021

Headline after headline has shown the stranglehold Donald Trump still has on the Republican Party, more than four months after leaving office.  This is also after being responsible for the overwhelming majority of the now-estimated 900,000 Covid-19 deaths, according to multiple studies but also to his own White House Coronavirus Task Force.  This is additionally after his terrorist campaign against the U.S. government on January 6, 2021, waging war against the people he had sworn to protect, torturing infants and children at the Southern border, and destabilizing the globe by alienating our allies, by renewing a nuclear arms race, and by unleashing unprecedented climate devastation.

That merely voting him out would not be the end of him or his influence is something we repeatedly warned against.  However, since expert perspectives, which with decades of research and experience of hundreds of patients would have brought a sense of measure, were kept out of public discourse, people naïvely believed that a single election would solve everything.  And those who plotted and planned to advance themselves and their agendas through his magnetic, pathological hold on his followers, continued undeterred.

Given the magnitude of this crisis, and the relevance of mental health as applicable to society, the World Mental Health Coalition (WMHC) inaugurated its Truth and Restoration Town Hall series in March 2021, as part of a larger Project for National Healing.  It will cover a range of topics that includes racism, cultism, dangerous foreign policy, and escalating global inequality.  Most recently, we held a discussion with the theme: “Dangerous Leadership, the Silencing of Experts, and the Erasure of Truth.”  A video recording of the event is now available.  Of note, it followed and expanded upon another symposium, organized by the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), which discussed the muzzling of mental health experts and can be viewed here.  The Law School event illustrates how seriously the silencing of experts during the Trump presidency is now being taken even from outside of the mental health field.

We noted how intellectuals, like journalists, are targeted for silencing under authoritarianism, when science and objective truth are casualties.  The goal of today’s authoritarian regimes is to undermine the very idea of objectivity to confuse, control, and disempower populations.  Containing and restraining dangerous leadership has always been important, if only in terms of the cost in human lives and human suffering.  Democracy seems be one of our best answers, and thus preventing the takeover of Western democracies by authoritarian leaders has become an urgent issue, especially in the midst of a climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, rising geopolitical tensions, and unsustainable levels of inequality.  Ian Hughes, Ph.D., and Bandy Lee, M.D., M.Div., coauthors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, served as co-chairs.

The session opened with Jerome Kroll, M.D., one of the foremost psychiatric ethicists and experts on “the Goldwater rule” of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which used the rule to muzzle all mental health professionals under the Trump administration.  He first noted that “the Goldwater rule” is not a rule but a principle or guidance.  Secondly, the APA’s publication, Psychiatric News, is full of articles on racism, climate warming, health equity, and LGBTQ, all things it sees as issues psychiatry should be involved in, but nothing is ever said about “the Goldwater rule” and Donald Trump, who since 2016 greatly increased hatred around the world.

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D., one of the founders of Feminist Psychology and faculty member of San Jose State University, noted how women’s health care and women’s control of their own bodies have been threatened under the Trump presidency in legal as well as in psychological ways.  Donald Trump served as a role model for weak masculinity, for discrediting experts, for cheating, and now for open lying.  This has been an assault on the soul, psychologically in terms of the spirit of everybody, on the ability to believe truth.  It is part of grooming for trafficking, for abuse and for further abuse.

Robert Whitaker, Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative journalist and founder of Mad in America, said he asked himself two questions: why is the media listening to “the Goldwater rule”?  And why would the APA silence its own members at a time of crisis?  The media’s obligation is to the public, to inform and to engage and debate.  Hence, it was quite a failure to say, the American public should not hear from those who theoretically have some insight into the mind.  And psychiatry has a public service obligation as well.  Saying, “We should be quiet,” did not serve but harmed the public.

Peter Pomerantsev, senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at London School of Economics and author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War against Reality, had left Russia after living there for ten years, because he was sick of a politics and a society where truth had no value, and everything was reduced to: you are either in Vladimir Putin’s majority or not.  And lo and behold, the U.K. and the U.S. had their great revolutionary year of 2016, and all the pathologies prevalent in Russia had spread to the West.  His latest book is trying to work out why.

Kieran Keohane, Ph.D., professor in sociology at University College Cork and editor of The Social Pathologies of Contemporary Civilisation, argued that what we see is, if we took a long historical view, a period of intense crisis and transformation.  In times of intense transformation, people find it difficult to maintain a coherent sense of self.  Liminal conditions are conducive to contagion, such as viral contagion, as the Covid, but mimetic contagious epidemics is what happened during the 1930’s and the rise of fascism and communism.  When a prominent leader does it, everybody follows, and as long as he is entertaining, people like it.

In times of uncertainty, societal mental health and safety are our foundation, and facts and knowledge our armament.  We hope you will join us in our Project for National Healing.